Is British Democracy Becoming A Competition of Incompetence?

If we all stand back and take a ruthless, non-tribal, unheroic look at the standards on offer in the general election, this is a competition of incompetence. It is only because the Labour Party has so lost its way that the Conservatives appear in any way competent.

In practice, the Conservative’s current majority and ‘liberation’ from the moderating power of the LibDems, has seen them binging on their ideology: cut public services in the name of austerity economics, harsh on welfare, all things ‘private’ are good, grammar schools, etc.

Theresa May’s enlightened proposals for worker representation on company boards, calling into question Hinkley Point nuclear power station, and restraining executive pay have disappeared as the lobbying has swung into action and yet more power seeps from us, the citizens, to big companies and industries and other powerful preferential lobbies.

The irony of our system is that the Conservative party’s belief in free markets does not extend to the electoral marketplace, which would be in all of our interests.

Representative democracy is, or should be, a competitive market. Politicians and political parties are competing to win the power to govern. As with all markets, the more competitive it is, the higher are the standards of product or service.

The less competitors, the lower the standards.

Imagine just two car manufacturers, or only two supermarket chains. Standards would be low, although, very occasionally, we might be lucky. Alas, in Westminster, with First Past The Post holding us hostage, competition is limited to the two main political parties.

The common narrative now presents the choice as between the competent Conservative government and the incompetent Opposition. Theresa May has only to be perceived to be better than Jeremy Corbyn to win. Big ask.

Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday puts it this way:

“I can put up with Mrs May saying she’s not as bad as the alternative. That’s probably true, except if she decides to have a war. But the idea that our rulers have any idea what they are doing, or can be trusted with our national future, is a joke.”

George Monbiot in The Guardian displays similar disenchantment.

Regardless as to whether remaining or leaving is for the better in the round, David Cameron made one of the great blunders of modern times in calling the referendum using the simplistic question posed and without the essential accompanying independent information, public engagement on the basis of knowledge, and deliberation essential to taking a sound decision – EDD: Engage, Deliberate, Decide.

Elections come and go, and the same old same old follow: debates, initiatives, announcements, legislation, restructurings, altered fundings, new managements, and new names ramble on alongside the self-scoring rhetorically massaged statistics so essential to the modern minister to ‘prove’ that it’s working. Except it isn’t and it doesn’t.

The incompetence on offer is near universal.

Schools continue to be pulled this way and that by the latest wheeze: in no other European country do politicians agree so little on policy for schools.

The train service has been an ordeal by buck passing for many commuters. The Swiss don’t find this necessary. The Conservative party does, as it worships at that alter of the false god, fake privatisation.

The health service has been under permanent reform since the early 80s and is still not reformed. Welfare policy is presently hard on benefits, having been soft on benefits under Labour, with almost no useful feedback on what has and has not worked for which segment of recipient under either extreme, to inform future policy.

Austerity has not worked economically, let alone socially. Neo-liberalism, for which none of us voted, continues to rule to the detriment of most. Totalitarian corporates and their abuse of market power, are one consequence.

Banking regulation has been tightened a bit, but they continue to cook up fiendishly clever derivatives – some/all of which will fail and will we pay the costs.

As consumers and as employees, we continue to struggle our way through public services, and to struggle our way through the privatized and flaccidly regulated utilities. Oh, those dangerous beliefs.

In the last 30 years, has any one thing actually ever been sorted out properly and left well alone to function? This does happen in other countries, believe it or not. Germany has had the same system for schools since 1949.

Few developed countries have the perpetual debate/row over the organization of their health services, which is deemed normal here.

People going into politics are usually able and well-motivated. Their – and our -problem is that they enter a system that is broken: it is a real struggle to bring about any beneficial change on the ground. It’s not surprising that it’s broken because it has never been designed.

It’s never been designed to spend 40% of GDP on a large range of highly varied public services, nor to handle the global power of big corporates, banks, and media companies. Preferential lobbying is not an inevitability but a direct consequence of this absence of design.

None of this is the fault of the political parties: they have been borne into a system that makes them incompetent in government. But they are to blame for not changing it. 

We all get so sucked into the low-level debates that today’s politics depend upon, in my case by my neighbour trumpeting that current refrain – “she needs a bigger majority.” Why? To deliver us safely from the mountain I suppose.

The psychological implications of these ‘narratives’ are really quite dodgy.

Party supporters are well schooled by Central Office. Another parrot came in response to why May is not appearing in the televised leaders’ debates: “not a forum in which competence can be demonstrated.” Neither are Prime Minister’s Questions, party advertising, or photo opportunities.

Dogfights around carefully manicured messages, the tribalism that draws us in to a fatuous debate, the news media feeding off an election soap opera, and simple like and dislike of a politician, all maintain the status quo.

If, like me, the prospect of this election is inducing lethargy, annoyance, and ‘what is the point?’, one comfort is that this is an entirely rational response. Little will change, little will improve, some will degrade.

The good news is that less and less of us are taken in. I smiled on reading that in France “something important happened that was largely unnoticed: an opinion poll showed that the main concern of the people was neither unemployment nor immigration, but the reform of state institutions and the implementation of a radical sixth republic” by Olivier Tonneau.

The French understand the power and significance of a constitution to their quality of life. Will a tipping point occur here, when enough conclude that it’s the system we should be voting on not another set of people destined for a lifetime of underachievement?

Once the system works then who runs it becomes germane.

Is there another way? Yes. The system we have has not come down from heaven. It’s a mixture of the bare essentials of basic democracy, human rights, and rule of law, and stuff bolted on as government’s role has expanded hugely, and its operation become complex.

It’s like the crumbling stately homes of the aristocracy before the National Trust took them over.

If you’re interested in what an effective system of government would look like, here is one as a diagramAnd in words:

Would it be better? Do you have other ideas? What would bring it about? Is it time both the Labour and Conservative parties are referred to the competition authorities for monopolistic practices?

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  • Korhomme

    To add to the list of things that must be constantly changed: why is the tax system/the benefits system changed yearly?

    A more fundamental question; how come that Germany, reduced so we are supposed to believe to rubble by 1945, is now so much stronger economically than the UK?

    Why is the Finnish school system so much better than the UK’s? Why is the French health system better on so many measures than the NHS?

    Could it be that the two party system is long past its best-before date? The Swiss have had strong and stable leadership and strong and stable government for decades; look where that has got them. But — whisper it quietly — their continuing strong and stable government has been a multi-party coalition for decades. No chaos there.

  • Brian Walker

    Why not try what the politicians can never do, blame the sweaty nightcaps, the people the bastards, for their endless demands for bread and circuses? Greedy, irresponsible, deceitful, conceited, lazy, willfully ignorant, selfish and – – I nearly forgot- bigoted? That’s only me and I’m not a bad person….

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Look no further than the class system in England – the royal family, Eton, public schools, deference and associated right-wing tendencies (against their better interests) on the part of the English working class, the whole bit where clowns like Cameron, Osborne and Johnston can effortlessly find themselves in the ‘corridors of power’ because ‘they think they might be good at it’. Where manual skills are devalued and the Foreign office still think in terms of “Empire 2”.

    England has never had a real revolution, or been recently invaded and conquered, so the institutions of government have fossilised, along with the attitudes of the classes who have managed to monopolise power in the UK. The whole concept of the UK is far beyond it’s sell-by date, and will shortly collapse, if my vote for the SNP has anything to do with it.

  • the rich get richer

    Cameron , Osborne and Johnston .

    If these three were born in a council estate they would be the council estate idiot……

    Because of where they went to school , Two of the got to run the country…….

    What could possibly go wrong…..Oh Wait……..

  • Jeff

    Are you conveniently forgetting 1066, that had a fundamental change on England!

  • Korhomme

    Ah yes, the English class system. It might once have worked, but it too is long past its sell-by date. If there was a revolution in 1688, it was to entrench the status of the elite.

  • Korhomme

    A change of ruler, 300 years of Norman French (still available in Westminster), but the peasants were still peasants.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    You must be joking? That was nearly 1000 years ago.

  • Macca

    *Accidental post!*

  • mickfealty

    Lord Protector?

  • Korhomme

    And that was 400 years ago, and a temporary aberration.

  • aquifer

    May’s support for grammar schools can be driven by witnessing the mess that public schoolboys have made in public. It can be in the wider public interest to have a cadre of seriously smart people available so as not to make a complete mess of government. Toffs with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement are now a serious social and economic problem.

  • NotNowJohnny

    The diagram may work well in theory (or not) but the great flaw is that it depends on people to make it work and with people comes incompetence. That is a fact of life. Political parties will continue to nominate incompetent candidates and the electorate will continue to elect them. Party leaders, often elected by incompetent party faithful, will continue to appoint incompetent politicians to ministerial positions and incompetent ministers will continue to come up with daft policy proposals and rely on incompetent civil servants to develop and implement them. Of course not everyone is incompetent, many aren’t – the normal distribution curve applies – but incompetence is rarely a barrier to progression in any walk of life, let alone government. So no matter how good your system is, the incompetent will still get elected and promoted and it is they who will end up making (bad) policy and implementing it (badly).

  • tmitch57

    Ed,
    Several reactions. First, politics is a strange market as it is the only one in which the advertisers and marketing people aren’t concerned with increasing the overall market for their product but only their relative share of the market as compared to their competitors even if the means they use to do this causes the overall market to shrink. Second, Britain/the UK doesn’t really have a constitution it just pretends to have one. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the U.S. has been taking its cue from Britain in recent decades. Third, as noted countries that haven’t experienced revolutions tend to have ossified dysfunctional political systems dominated by a small elite. Unfortunately the cure–revolution–is normally much worse than the disease.

  • Sean Danaher

    The quality of the current generation of politicians in the UK is poor. Quite frankly I would deem both Corbyn and May unemployable as PM. I’ve had to cancel job interviews because there were no suitable candidates. Thatcher (and I’m absolutely no fan) was extremely formidable and has a very talented cabinet; Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine being the only ones still around and seem to tower above the newer crop. Ken Clarke’s Brexit speech was excellent – I thought the “down the rabbit hole” metaphor was inspired.

    The UK needs PR. The first past the post system creates dual problems. Firstly it virtually guarantees two main parties with very disparate groups. Corbyn was hoping that Brexit would tear the Tory party apart. The irony is that Labour is the party that seems to be falling apart. Secondly it creates tipping points which makes coalitions very rare. This (putting a control engineers hat on) causes instability and oscillation or at least what control engineers call “bang bang” control. What is needed is proportional control.
    A good post and thanks for the Info-graphic.

  • Kevin Breslin
  • SeaanUiNeill

    “If there was a revolution in 1688, it was to entrench the status of the elite.”

    And to consequently reverse that development of religious equality which marked the short reign of James:

    http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674073098

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Mick, the “Lord Protector” was buried in a Crown and Ermine, after weakening seriously on the offer of the Crown, so in common with most revolutions, the interregnum was almost a simple change of dynasties as occurred in 1714.

  • Ed Straw

    Yes. What else can we say? Exactly right. Loved the Swiss point. I’ll use it if that’s ok? Ed

  • Ed Straw

    Understand what you mean.
    And/but to an extent, often considerable, the system determines how the people behave. The slacker the rules/controls/transparency the more anyone in a position of power will behave autocratically and ignore the people. That’s one reason for limiting terms of office for prime ministers to 8 years – arguably should be 6.
    On the other hand, a well designed system for any organisation, will get the best out of people. The Treaty for Government would also attract a different breed of people as politicians and civil servants since the focus would be on real results not image/spin. Posh boys would not like that, amongst others

  • Ed Straw

    Yes. Especially like your point about it being an odd market. Our system has seen the political parties’ market share decline: voter turnout.
    Some day, we may get to the point where enough people understand the power of a constitution and to vote for one.

  • Ed Straw

    Yes. There’s a lot for political scientists etc to learn from control engineering thinking and similar. Thrashing

  • NotNowJohnny

    Limiting terms of office seems a good idea but ultimately if it means getting rod up a good PM and replacing them with a poor one only on the basis that their 6 or 8 years is up, then it doesn’t seem so good.

    As regards rules, controls and transparency, they guarantee nothing. Take RHI. There were tight rules, controls and transparency measures in place including the business case, the policy making process, the legislative process, treasury rules, audits, freedom of information, scrutiny by the departmental assembly committee, line management oversight, accounting officer approval, briefings to the departmental board etc. It’s hard to think of how controls, rules and transparent measures could be improved. And it still ended up severely botched.

  • Korhomme

    Use away! The Swiss example is perhaps not universal; they are a population that sees the citizens as the sovereign, that is ‘they’ are the government; there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’.

    (Be aware though, that there will be those that say that Italy has has coalitions for yonks, and they are almost a basket case.)

  • Korhomme

    Thanks for the reference; that certainly casts James in a very different light from what we have been led to understand up to now. (And perhaps I should have said ‘Establishment’ rather than ‘elite’.)

  • tmitch57

    That probably won’t happen as long as the schools continue to teach that Britain has an “unwritten” constitution. Leaving it unwritten gives more power to the judges.

  • John Collins

    Seann
    I am glad somebody is trying to give a fairer assessment of the House of Stewart in general and James 11 in particular. I have also heard it debated that William of Orange, whose wife and mother were both of the HOS, actually subscribed to the idea of religious toleration, but he he was over overruled by the Anglican Ascendancy.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Korhomme. “We are all revisionists now”, as Roy Foster perceptively said, but in the rather broader sense that everything previously held as apparent fact is entirely up for review across contemporary historiography, with the sacred cows of every political interest group falling to the pen everywhere. Of course this culture of reappraisal naturally includes the questionable certainties of what in Ireland is called “the Revisionist canon” itself!

    Scott’s work devastatingly undermines the entire foundation of the Orange/Whig canon which underlies Unionist historiography, and opens out new and to my mind far more interesting interpretive possibilities. For one thing, it is a tremendous irony that the Presbyterians of the north of Ireland enjoyed a religious liberty under James for a few years which they bartered away simply to ensure by their efforts that Catholics did not enjoy a similar religious freedom. It would be a century and more, and of course another revolution (1798) before the penal restrictions both confessions suffered under would be fully lifted.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The Prince of Orange was a hard headed pragmatist, and his toleration was a practical matter reflecting what clearly worked in Holland, but yes, he was primarily supported by vested interests for whom the Test Act secured their political dominance and who had only turned against James because their power base was threatened by his policies of general Religious tolerance.

    Of course there were still men of principal in both political camps, with many who ruined themselves by flowing james into exile while it is of interest that of the seven bishops whose trial was one of the causes of William’s descent on England, five refused to take an oath of allegiance to him as “king”.

  • Ed Straw

    Quite.
    “The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government”
    George Washington
    A constitution has to be produced externally to the body being constituted. A self-developed constitution is like football teams changing the rules as the game goes along. Chaos and unfairness would ensue. Which is what we have with government, surprise surprise.
    An ‘unwritten constitution’ is an oxymoron. A constitution is not a constitution unless it is written down. Otherwise it’s a con and fudge to enable those in power to stay there with limited accountability. Another reason our standard of government is so low.

  • Ed Straw

    On terms of office, history is a pretty good indicator of how long anyone stays a good PM in office. They degrade. It’s an ultra tiring and demanding job. Even the good ones need to go. Can you think of anyone in modern times that we would have wanted to keep after 8 years?

  • NotNowJohnny

    I have to say that I probably agree with you on that.